Taking The Taboo Out Of Mature Gaming

It's like clockwork; Moments after popping open any game that has a mature rating, my 10-year-old son seems to appear at my elbow to ask if he can play it with me.

It's a mix of things that draws Tristan to these games that he knows I don't let him play. I suspect the fact that I've told him he can't play them tops the list, followed by the fact that they deal with topics considered taboo for most children.

So when Gears of War 3 arrived on my doorstep within minutes Tristan arrived at my elbow. But I surprised him with an unusual answer to his usual question: We'll see, I said.

Increasingly, video games give players the ability to fine-tune their experience in a way that television shows and movies still can't.

In games like Gears of War, players can turn on filters that remove the mature language found in the game's dialog and the blood and gore that fills the game. You're still shooting the game's monstrous Locust and Lambent. But the sprays of blood and the ability to literally blast an enemy into bloody chunks of meat is removed.

Games With Filters Gears of War isn't the only game with mature content filters. Here are a few other examples: -Assassin's Creed -Metal Gear Solid -God of War II -Call of Duty: Black Ops -StarCraft II

The resulting, much-tamer depiction of violence against fictional creatures had me reconsidering my hard no-mature games rule, but only because the game didn't seem to really deserve the rating with those filters turned on.

Curious about how the filters might impact ratings, I contacted the Entertainment Software Ratings Board for their take. Does the game deserve a second, filters-on rating, I asked. Turns out they get that question a lot from kids trying to win an argument with their parents.

"Ultimately we feel our rating should reflect the most extreme content possible, regardless of whether filters can eliminate or diminish some of that content," said ESRB spokesman Eliot Mizrachi. "Having a secondary 'filters on' rating would not only be potentially confusing for parents that are unaware of those settings, but may not provide those parents assurance in terms of avoiding their child's exposure to certain content since these filters aren't usually lockable and can typically be switched off by the player."

Mature filters have been around in Gears of War since the first game hit the Xbox 360 in 2006, but initially there was some debate over whether to include the option.

Some in the studio worried that including the filters would mean they were no longer staying true to their "creative vision," said Rod Fergusson, Epic Games' director of production. Ultimately, he said, they decided that wasn't the case and that including them had some benefits.

"Yes, in our minds the game is a better experience without filtering but it's still a great game with filtering turned on," he said. "And, at the end of the day, if these types of filters mean that a larger number of players get to experience our game then it is certainly worth the effort."

If you try to pull the arm off a Locust in Gears of War 3 and the filter is on, you'll punch the creature in the face instead.

That first Gears of War only had a single option for "extreme content." Turning it on cut down on the game's gore and mature language. In Gears of War 2, the developers decided to break that into two filters.

"It seems a number of people are OK with chainsawing monsters from the underground but would prefer not to hear swearing while doing it," Fergusson said.

In Gears of War 3, the two filters returned. While the gore filter hasn't really changed since the original game, Fergusson says the language filters have.

"In Gears 1, we called it 'Extreme Content' because we really only filtered out the harshest of words," he said. " In Gears 2 and now, Gears 3, we've increased the number of words we filter to make it more acceptable to a broader audience."

Giving players the ability to experience the game the way they want to isn't quite as simple as bleeping out a few words. Because the filters can be turned on or off, the process is more complex.

"For every line that has a word that we want to filter out, we'll have two lines loaded in memory - one mature and the other filtered," Fergusson said. "So when the game is preparing to play a line of dialogue, it checks the language filter flag, and if it's set to 'on,' then it will play the filtered line with the radio static. If it's set to 'off,' then it will play the original mature line. Inside each line is the appropriate subtitle so that onscreen text matches what's being said as well."

Even the static sound players hear when a word is filtered was debated.

"Initially, we tried the traditional bleep but it seemed to do more harm than good," he said. "Instead of the filter hiding the mature language, the bleep would give it more attention. In fact, in some cases you would replace the bleeped word in your mind with a word much stronger than what was actually written."

The team's audio director, Mike Larson, suggested trying to blend it more, by either using blanks or simply playing radio static, so it felt more like it was part of the world, he said. So now when you run into filtered foul language in the game it sounds like a radio is on the fritz and you hear static.

To decide what words to filter the team starts with a list based on current television standards for acceptable language. The team then goes through all of the possible bad language and discusses whether each word need to be filtered.

The gore filter is equally complex. When turned on, the game replaces the blood spray effect with one based on sparks.

"We can't simply remove it because in video games the blood is not only a visual effect, it's also an essential feedback mechanism to tell the player whether they're being successful or not," Fergusson said. "Beyond removing the appearance of blood, the gore filter will also prevent bodies from breaking apart or into chunks."

That means if you try to pull the arm off a Locust in Gears of War 3 and the filter is on, you'll punch the creature in the face instead. If you try to chainsaw or shot an enemy up close with a shotgun, they will die, but they won't be blown to bloody bits.

And that's just how the interactive bits of Gears of War is impacted. The game also has its share of non-interactive, movie-like cut-scenes.

Most of the Gears of War 3 cinematics are real-time, so the game can still alter things on the fly. But in previous versions of Gears of War, the game used pre-created moments. And that caused issues.

In Gears of War 2, for instance, there's a cinematic when the game's Sergeant Marcus Fenix utters an expletive. Late in development, Epic decided to pre-render the moment, to make the level run a bit smoother. But it created an issue: Salty language that couldn't be changed on the fly.

The solution was to rework the scene so Fleix says a tame version of the line, and turns his back to the camera as he speaks it so players don't see that he's still mouthing the extra curse word.

While Gears of War isn't the only video game series that allows players to filter out mature language, gore or both, it's still not seen in a lot of mature games.

Fergusson points out that adding the filters isn't a free feature. The developer needs to write two versions of spoken lines and create two sets of subtitles. There's also the cost to the power used by the machine running the game.

Memory is being taken up by having both versions of lines loaded, there's additional disk space taken by the extra audio and there's extra asset management going on.

"Given all that though, we at Epic feel that these filtering options are worth the effort to give the customer the experience he or she wants," he added.

Those customers include the people working at Epic as well.

"We definitely have a lot of parents at Epic who have taken advantage of the filtering," he said. "For me personally, I really enjoy playing Horde with my two sons (17 and nine) but I definitely turn on language filtering for my nine-year-old. If the filtering option didn't exist, then he wouldn't be able to play and we'd lose a lot of great family time together."

Well Played is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.


Comments

    Once again the mind boggles whenever I see someone complaining about the swearing in a game while being perfectly happy with it's ultra violence.

      I know right, it's just words and all but the most sheltered primary school kids know and use them anyway.

        A great example of this is BFBC2 and the Modern Warfare games. Both games, to my knowledge, where rated quite highly on the ESRB (Or whatever the Australian standard is, I forget)

        Anyway, a lot of the servers had swear filters on them in the chat, which baffled me. Hell, BFBC2 had its soldiers (Avatars, I guess) swear when things got intense. Which just baffled me.

        And everytime I'd get nailed for writing something like 'Suck' into the chat, I'd be reminded of this quote from Apocolypse Now-

        "But their commanders won't allow them to write "fuck" on their airplanes because it's obscene!"

      No harm in having the option though. I like being able to filter out the language so my boys in the next room don't have to hear it.

    When I was 10 years old, my dad took me to see 'Beavis and Butthead do America'. When I was 11, I was playing Doom and Doom 2 on our Amiga.

    We sure as heck didn't have 'mature filters' back then. Kids these days are too sheltered

    I found it interesting while playing that the gratuitous swearwords don't make their way into the subtitles. I think I recall the f-word written once, and only when it we inserted into the dialogue in a way that it's absence would be very noticeable i.e.: it made up part of a sentence rather than being inserted for emphasis. I figured that was just for the swear filter purposes.

    "because in video games the blood is not only a visual effect, it’s also an essential feedback mechanism to tell the player whether they’re being successful or not"

    inb4 ACL

      This. L4D2's censored version was harder to play sometimes, because you didn't know how damaged the zombies were. It became really frustrating, especially when you were low on ammo and stuff.

    I don't really give two hoots about language and gore... but now we have an R18+ rating... I want moar boobies in my games!naow!

    That's an interesting take. :)

    Also I'd learnt every swear word I'd need for life by first grade, and through the next quarter-century the only variation was the combinations therein.

    Now, can I see zombies die please?

    I think it's adorable people believe their 10 year olds are unfamiliar with the F word because they filter it at home. Unless your child is home schooled and never interacts with other kids at the park the whole exercise is futile. Children are drawn to adult concepts for no other reason than the fact they're withheld.

    Every parent has a line, mines definitely hazier than most, but regardless of what you try and withhold they will find a way to access it. I didn't permit my son to see Watchmen because of a scene of sexual violence I thought was beyond what a 12 year old should witness. I've even put of buying myself the film for that reason, turns out he saw it at a sleep over at a friends house not long after it came out.

      Just because they might have heard it somewhere else doesn't mean you can't help teach when it's acceptable or not. Would you want your kids to be those ones where every second word out of their mouths is F***?

        Do you honestly believe that children are so damn influential that they can become 'the swearing kid' just by playing gears? honestly, If my parents thought I was that stupid, I would have hated their guts. If parents extended more trust when it came to mature content, kids would be able to mature on a healthy level. A kid who is completely restricted from mature content at home is just the same as a kid who is not restricted but understands what is right and wrong because their parents communicate with them

        How do I teach my kids if bad language is acceptable or not if I shelter them to the point where they don't even know what bad language is?

        I've made it quite clear to all three of my children that they are forbidden from swearing until they get their drivers licenses, because there's too many fuckwits on Australian roads.

        My parents made it pretty clear that swearing wasn't acceptable, with the old mouth being washed out with soap treatment.
        Didn't stop me from becoming that kid in high school.

        Seriously, these filters are just for parents to feel better. I remember back in the day if I wanted to watch a movie that wasn't suitable for me, my dad would go through it and record over the bad parts with ads (since this was back in VHS times). After going through all that work they'd then let me watch it. My parents did a great job in knowing what was suitable and what wasn't, and letting me see or not see certain things.

        All of that didn't help at all when primary school kids are more foul-mouthed than Fred Durst. (At a Catholic school, no less.)

    I'm more against little kids playing any kind of game online. Since they scream, think they're entitled to everything, scream, swear and use slang thinking it makes them cool, scream, have no self control, constantly teabag, scream, abuse glitches, act like they're in charge, and finally scream all the damn time.

    I agree with most commenters that kids are often aware of the existence and use of curse words by the time they finish primary school. And parents would be fooling themselves to think otherwise.

    I knew my fair share of swear words as a kid, but my parents were very strict about the language that was permitted at home. For better or worse parents are still the biggest influence on their children, and one of the many things kids learn from their folks is how a civilised person speaks. Like Fergusson, I appreciate the fact that a parent can maintain the rules of the house re: language and violence (whatever those rules might be) at their option, without depriving the kids of some top-notch gaming.

      I'd amend that to the time they finish year 1.

    This reminds me of one of my favourite Penny Arcade strips of all time: http://penny-arcade.com/comic/2008/08/11

    Interesting piece, Brian. I'm not sure that I'd allow my 10yo to watch me play Gears with or without the content fitler, but its impact on the ESRB rating was interesting. I agree with their stance that having two ratings would be confusing for consumers. Perhaps at least making note of the fact that the feature exists would be helpful?

    I think everyone is overlooking a very obvious point. These games have an ESRB rating which tells parent's whether a game is suitable for little Jimmy bucket head or not. If you buy a game that is rated m15+, ma15+ or even M you need to understand that it will contain content that is suitable for people of that age bracket or mindset specified in the rating.

    If you're too fucking stupid to realise what those ratings mean, maybe it's time you stopped thinking and sat in a corner...forever

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